Why is Sinn Féin so uninterested in North-South cooperation?

If I am surprised at Irish university researchers’ lack of interest in North-South cooperation (see last month’s Note), I am utterly baffled by the lack of interest shown in this essential building block of the Belfast Agreement by the party of militant Northern nationalism, Sinn Féin.

Nobody is surprised that the DUP want to do as little North-South cooperation as possible: this is in their DNA. When Northern Ireland Economy Minister, Arlene Foster, unleashes a tirade in the Assembly against the Irish Government, the IDA, Tourism Ireland, the single energy market and all-island economic strategies (‘My vision is to look up and look out, not to look south’), nobody should be surprised.[i] When DUP ministers and their advisers make difficulties at meetings with Irish ministers or discussions about the affairs of North/South bodies, or put notes from Irish government departments into the interminable internal processes for which the Northern civil service is famous, nobody should be surprised.

What is surprising is that Sinn Féin ministers appear to do little or nothing to counter this minimalism (at best) or obstruction (at worst). Observers of North South Ministerial Council meetings say Sinn Fein ministers allow their DUP colleagues to set the snail’s pace agenda. They have few or no new ideas for North-South cooperation and when they come to North-South meetings they do the business with their DUP and Southern counterparts but little more. I can count the number of recognisable Sinn Féin people who have come to the Centre for Cross Border Studies’ 60 or so conferences and seminars over the past 12 years on the fingers of one hand.

Their failure to push for a meaningful North-South dimension to Northern Ireland’s governance is clearest in the economic sphere. The Executive’s November 2011 Economic Strategy consultation paper does not refer once in any significant way to the North-South or all-island aspects of the North’s economy (other than noting that too many of Northern Ireland’s exports go to Britain and Ireland – instead of further afield – and referring to Ireland’s, and Singapore’s, low corporation tax and pro-business regulatory environment).

Many people were surprised when Sinn Féin did not take the influential Enterprise, Trade and Investment portfolio after last May’s election, even though it was theirs for the taking. I have heard it said that this absence of interest in the economy is partly due to a lack of confidence in economic matters: although the IRA prisoners who became Sinn Féin leaders were famous for their attention to their studies when they were in jail, few studied economics. However I think it is more to do with their reluctance to take the hard economic decisions that Northern Ireland policy-makers – in common with their counterparts everywhere in Europe – will be facing in the coming years. They prefer to remain the party of left-wing protest, albeit from within the governing structure of Northern Ireland.

So why does sensible North-South cooperation for mutual economic benefit, mutual understanding and reconciliation between the people of the two parts of Ireland appear to rank so low in Sinn Féin’s priorities? After some reflection, I suggest five reasons:

The first I have already given: their failure to understand the vital economic dimension of working together in Ireland and how it can bring tangible benefits to the citizens of the whole island. The second is that Sinn Féin was never really wedded to the North-South strand of the Belfast Agreement, which it sees as an SDLP creation.

Third, they see North-South cooperation – the inter-governmental and people-to-people cooperation which is at the heart of ‘Strand Two’ of that Agreement – as a distraction on the road to their ultimate goal: a constitutionally united Ireland. They have never really signed up to John Hume’s hugely demanding and long-term emphasis on uniting the people of Ireland rather than its territory.

Fourth, and linked to this, they remain an old-fashioned nationalist party which does not see jurisdictional boundaries as things to be overcome in the European sense – through economic cooperation and labour mobility, and now common fiscal oversight – but as marks on a map that must be erased by political (and formerly paramilitary) action. They fear that the kind of limited cross-border cooperation currently happening between two mutually respecting administrations in Dublin and Belfast will serve to legitimise the existence of that border. This fear was not assuaged by the findings of last summer’s Northern Ireland Life and Times survey, which reported that only 33% of Northern Catholics wanted Irish unity in the long-term.

Fifth, they are now a major opposition party in the South, snapping at Fianna Fail’s ragged heels. In that role, they don’t want to be seen doing anything that might lead to a North-South success story which the Irish Government could claim as its own.

Ironically, the best news about North-South cooperation in December came from a DUP source. Following the publication of the Compton Review into health and social care in Northern Ireland – which recommended a number of cross-border initiatives in specialist paediatric services and cancer treatment – the pragmatic DUP Health Minister, Edwin Poots, said the Review’s recommendation that Daisy Hill Hospital in Newry should be downgraded could be offset  by the Irish Government helping to finance Daisy Hill so that it could ‘extend its services’ to cover the population on both sides of the border. He said he was having ‘conversations’ with the Irish health authorities about this.[ii]

Andy Pollak

P.S.  Another amendment to a previous Note from the Next Door Neighbours! Last month I was complaining about university researchers’ lack of interest in North-South cooperation. However in research she has been doing for the Irish Department of Education and Skills, my colleague Patricia McAllister has uncovered no fewer than 425 research projects (many of them scientific projects) with partners from universities and institutes of technology in the two Irish jurisdictions (usually as part of wider European consortia). That’s pretty impressive.

[i] Speech  in Northern Ireland Assembly, 17 October 2011

[ii] ‘Newry Hospital’s future may depend on funding from Republic’, Irish Times, 14 December 2011

  • keano10

    “Observers of North South Ministerial Council meetings say Sinn Fein ministers allow their DUP colleagues to set the snail’s pace agenda.”

    And who exactly are these “observers” Andy? You have provided no links or clues as to who these people are…

    This whole piece is unbelievably thin on actual factual content. You simply elaborate on your personal opinion (somewhat far-fetched in truth) that Sinn Fein are reluctant to pursue North-South co-operation.

  • iluvni

    “Centre for Cross Border Studies’ 60 or so conferences and seminars”

    Who pays for all this pointless bollocks?

  • Little James

    iluvni – Me and you, unfortunately.

  • FuturePhysicist

    It’s not surprising that there are so many science and technology papers on an all Ireland basis. The Institute of Physics, Chemistry and Biology as well as the Mathematics Society operate on an all-Ireland basis, while working with their UK colleagues. Similar associations in Engineering, Health Sciences, and Information Technology.

    As far as De Valera’s “other” passion is concerned, the island of Ireland is very much united in a common cause.

  • The yokel

    Andy, the Executive’s “policy” is hammered out behind closed doors between SF & DUP without parliamentary or media scrutiny so it is difficult to ascertain the reasons why SF’s all Ireland stance appears at odds with their core beliefs.
    You have obviously hit a raw nerve, as their responses so far are a little lacking in substance.

  • FuturePhysicist

    It’s funny to see the likes of O’Dowd talk about “hard fought institutions” when it comes to having a forum on a solution to the academic selection problem and yet does little to defend these institutions by ensuring debate and scrutiny of legislation takes place in them, be they the Assembly, Joint ministerial councils, committees or BIC.

  • “I can count the number of recognisable Sinn Féin people who have come to the Centre for Cross Border Studies’ 60 or so conferences and seminars over the past 12 years on the fingers of one hand.”

    Andy, perhaps the level of CCBS hospitality doesn’t match that available in the USA:

    Mr Adams’ favourite restaurant still appears to be Bobby Van’s on 50th Street in Manhattan, where he and party colleagues can enjoy the $48.50 (€37) steaks. ..

    Fine dining and expensive hotel accommodation continued for Sinn Fein visits last year to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the 1981 Maze hunger strike.

  • Mary Anna

    Let us call a spade a spade PIRA- PS/F – these sociopaths never have been interest in an united Ireland, because if they did want an united Ireland – they would not be in British Stormont and the Dail today! PS/f knew that they could never achieve an united Ireland! It was all for power greed jobs for the boys.They are dictators and fascists kkk ! They gained political advantage over the dead -killings bombings beating people into submission, murdering informers. The big plan was to let the hunger strikers die- this was their icing on their cake!Sorry cakes, they are now up in British Stormont and the money is to good to fight for what?( Change united Ireland) LOL LOL LOL my left foot -but a united Kingdom is the place to be today for the godfathers, big money- dirty deals and cover ups – the Brits and Americians, all are guilty of big egos- they all want to go down in history as the peace makers -but all that they have done was put a plaster over the damage that was done to 47, 000 injured -over 3027 -this is called a political done deal! There was never going to be an United Ireland, it was all a bluff by the most violent thugs at the top -pensions Gerry north did he do well out of the war?For themselves and their own self interests fill pockets full of £££££££££££ ego power control over the most vulnerable- their day is coming the party is over- enjoy while you can- because families are going to fight for truth and justice -and convictions by peaceful means! Civil right -we shall overcome the truth one day. While sin/f will reap the pensions Martin and his kkk up in British Stormont –

  • Alias

    It’s not actually “North-South cooperation” despite the propaganda term.

    It’s two seperate states transferring sovereign powers to a supranational authority. The NSMC is one of only two supranational authorities in the EU, with the other being the EU.

    The designations of ‘north’ and ‘south’ are designed to create the misleading impression among a gullible public that there is one jurisdiction and one state involved. The use of ‘co-operation’ is a deliberate misnomer to refer euphemistically to supranationalism.

    The principle that is established is that the Irish nation has no right to be sovereign, and must transfer the sovereign powers of its state to a supranational authority where they will be jointly exercised by the British state and subject to its national interests and veto.

    However, the transfer of the sovereignty does not involve all of the British nation, so the bargain is that the Irish nation converts itself by constitutional arrangement into a non-sovereign nation while the British nation remains as a sovereign nation. It is only a small region of the British state which transfer which is effected by the supranational authority but it is all of the Irish state.

    That process of leading the Irish nation to convert itself into a non-sovereign nation is one of the reasons why the British state regards the Shinners as an indispenable part of its constitutional strategy for Ireland.

  • The yokel

    Apart from that Alias, would you object to a supranationalistic electricity market, with obvious advantages to hard working families in the whole of Ireland.

  • galloglaigh

    I can never understand how Mary Anna gets away with so many posts that attack republicans. I got a red card for telling a stupid joke, and for asking (not declaring) if a comparison can be made between Jim Allister and Pat Finucane!

  • Reader

    galloglaigh: I can never understand how Mary Anna gets away with so many posts that attack republicans.
    It looks like you can play the Organisation, but not the Man – which seems reasonable. Anyway, her stuff is grounded in a fairly common perception of armed force republicanism in most respects. And if there was an automatic red card for comparing local groups with the KKK then Slugger would be bereft of republicans for most of the summer.

  • Chris Donnelly

    Andy
    You raise an important issue, though several of your suggested reasons for Sinn Fein’s lethargic approach are simply nonsensical.

    The first point is perhaps the only credible one, and it is evident that time alone will succeed in infusing Sinn Fein at elected representative and advisory level with the type of personnel capable of moving ahead with the type of programme you accurately indicate would be expected of a party seeking to define itself as the authentic all-Ireland voice.

    In one sense, this has already begun to happen in the 26 counties, where a tier of impressive elected reps and advisors have succeeded in elevating the party’s profile and developing a stinging critique of the existing government, with the result being the party’s poll surge.

    This is clearly an area where republicans have underperformed, though to suggest it is because of antipathy to Strand Two is to fundamentally misunderstand the problem.

  • “a stinging critique of the existing government, with the result being the party’s poll surge”

    Chris, these opinion polls show SF slipping from 16% just over a year ago to 10% with a late rally to 18% – hardly evidence of a grand surge and not necessarily related to that ‘stinging critique’. FF’s late rally has taken it from 10% to 16% but both are a considerable way behind FG’s 35%.

  • Alias

    “Apart from that Alias, would you object to a supranationalistic electricity market, with obvious advantages to hard working families in the whole of Ireland.”

    What advantages? The bogus claim used to promote the process of converting the Irish into a non-sovereign nation in regard to derogation of formerly-sovereign powers to this particular supranational authority is that their are financial rewards for the nation for the conversion.

    However, if they are led to put a price on their sovereignty, shouldn’t there be monitoring to ensure that the claimed financial rewards are real and ongoing rather than fraudulent?

    If, in fact, they sell their sovereignty and are economically worse off, they might like to review the arrangement. That is probably why there is no scrutiny of the bogus claims that are proffered to lead them to sell their sovereignty and no ongoing monitoring of the arrangement once sold.

  • FuturePhysicist

    In other words Nevin, when they describe the SDLP as irrelevant in the North, their own polling in the Republic is often as “irrelevant”,as both the Republic’s minor left wing party and minor republican party I guess boasting about “stinging critiques” is a bit self-reflecting statement for them.

  • MrsCabbage

    Can you tell me where in the Compton Report it recommends Daisy Hill Hospital for downgrade?

    There is no such recommendation and your inclusion of this incorrect information draws your whole line of argument into question

  • The yokel

    Alias, Ireland is a small island. For technical reasons this makes the generation and supply of electricity expensive. To divide Ireland further makes it more so. It makes perfect engineering and economic sense to plan and manage the system as one unit.
    Your point about monitoring and review is, of course, correct and necessary.
    I have heard concerns have been also expressed around Ballymena viz. the comforting orange glow of the 20 watt light bulb(yes you can get them) will change to a stark green light if electricity is imported from the republic.

  • Scáth Shéamais

    Interesting article. However I don’t know much about the CCBS, so I’m left wondering why Sinn Féin people should see it as a priority to attend their conferences.

  • “sell their sovereignty and no ongoing monitoring of the arrangement”

    Alias, I’ve obtained an official explanation for the absence of parliamentary scrutiny: “Details of the exchanges between the two [UK and Ireland] Governments remain confidential”. Although it was made in 1994 it’s relevance is current. The MSM has maintained a studied disinterest in this aspect of joint administration.

  • Cynic2

    “a tier of impressive elected reps and advisors have succeeded in elevating the party’s profile and developing a stinging critique of the existing government”

    Chris

    I am delighted to see your admission that SF is at heart still a protest party – good at criticism but without the intellectual capital or experience to take on the heavier roles in Government actually grappling with difficult problems

    Thank you for your honesty.

    Happy Christmas

  • Alias

    Nevin, that refers to the old Intergovernmental Conference established under the previous. That was subsumed by the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference and Secretariat which came into effect in 1999 under the new treaty.

    Mayhew was correct that it didn’t involve any derogation of sovereignty, However, that situation changed after the treaty was ratified by the 19th Amendment in Ireland.

    As the Irish Constitution under Article 5 requires the consent of the Irish people to transfer the exercise of their sovereignty from the government to third parties – such as the new supranational institutions – that was duly given in the 19th Amendment.

    However, not a sinner who voted for it is aware that they gave sovereignty away to the UK, and that the UK now has a veto over the exercise of political, economic and cultural policies of the Irish state and that it exercises this veto in its own national interest. For example, Irish people would be shocked to discover that promotion and protection of the Irish language is no longer a sovereign matter for them or their government as the government has given that essential cultural sovereignty away to the new supranational institution. The whole deception was done by stealth, with the people deliberately kept in ignorance of it – now as back then.

    It is the nature of supranational authorities that they are not subject to democratic scrutiny. Now can they be? The sovereignty no longer belongs to the state but to the new authority.

  • Alias

    Typo: “that refers to the old Intergovernmental Conference established under the previous treaty.”

  • Chris Donnelly

    I am delighted to see your admission that SF is at heart still a protest party – good at criticism but without the intellectual capital or experience to take on the heavier roles in Government actually grappling with difficult problems

    Cynic
    Quite how you interpreted all of that from my comments is somewhat perplexing and disingenous.

    My comments would equally apply to all of the main political parties in the north of Ireland who continue to struggle to impress me with their inability to articulate policy positions on the breadth of issues they face in the Executive.

    And a Happy New Year to you!